Federal Policy Highlights New View of Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

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For medical marijuana dispensaries in the Bay Area, a U.S. Department of Justice memo released Monday may ease tension between state and federal legalization laws.

The memo, sent to federal prosecutors in the 14 states--including California--that have legalized the use of medical marijuana, stated that the targeting of dispensaries and patients with legal prescriptions would be a low priority. This new approach is indicative of a feeling within Berkeley that dispensaries should be able to function as normal members of the community.

While California has passed state laws to legalize the medical use of marijuana, dispensaries and patients who use medical marijuana can still be prosecuted for violation of federal law.

"All they've said is that it's a change. We don't actually know if this will mean less federal action," said Robert MacCoun, a UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law professor of law and public policy.

Still, medical marijuana dispensary Berkeley Patients Group sees the announcement as a sign of changing times.

"It's kind of a sigh of relief for us," said Brad Senesac, spokesperson for the dispensary. "Patients are going to be a little bit more comfortable coming in and getting their medication."

The dispensary, one of three authorized in the city of Berkeley, will be honored on Oct. 31 after the Berkeley City Council declared that date "Berkeley Patients Group Day" for the business's 10th anniversary.

City Councilmember Darryl Moore, who supported the declaration, said Berkeley Patients Group has worked hard to maintain a safe and efficient business.

"They do a great job with the community, working with their constituents and keeping the place clean," he said.

Moore also applauded the dispensary's commitment to the community and the donations it has made to the Center for Early Intervention on Deafness, the YMCA and other non-profit organizations. Senesac said the dispensary donates an estimated $200,000 a year.

Moore said although some residents have been worried about the dispensaries in the past, the city has only had a problem with a former dispensary on University Avenue that is now closed.

"It was a new commodity to a lot of people, so there were normal concerns about how they would operate initially," he said. "Any fears that anyone may have had have been taken care of."

While Senesac admitted that dispensaries in general have been somewhat stigmatized in the past, he said that Berkeley Patients Group strives to provide a safe environment for patients.

According to Moore, dispensaries may be of use to cities beyond their role in providing medicine. He said in addition to its medical benefits, the sale of marijuana could benefit the city through sales tax.

Moore said the city of Oakland recently passed a measure to increase the money it receives from the sale of marijuana, and he hopes that Berkeley will look into increasing the percentage of sales tax it receives.

MacCoun also said that harsh economic times may have changed previously negative attitudes towards the sale of medical marijuana.

"This year we've seen a shift from stigma to a search for new tax revenues," said MacCoun. "Two years ago, when the economy was better, nobody was talking about that."


Contact Michael Garcia at [email protected]

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